If we must blindly accept every allegation of sexual assault, the #MeToo movement is just a hit squad. And it's too important to be no more than that.
During 28 years as a state and federal prosecutor, I prosecuted a lot of sexual assault cases. The vast majority came early in my career, when I was a young attorney at a prosecutor’s office outside Detroit.
A year ago, Tara Reade accused former Vice President Joe Biden of touching her shoulder and neck in a way that made her uncomfortable, when she worked for him as a staff assistant in 1993. Then last month, Reade told an interviewer that Biden stuck his hand under her skirt and forcibly penetrated her with his fingers. Biden denies the allegation.
When women make allegations of sexual assault, my default response is to believe them. But as the news media have investigated Reade’s allegations, I’ve become increasingly skeptical. Here are some of the reasons why:
► Delayed reporting … twice. Reade waited 27 years to publicly report her allegation that Biden sexually assaulted her. I understand that victims of sexual assault often do not come forward immediately because recounting the most violent and degrading experience of their lives, to a bunch of strangers, is the proverbial insult to injury. That so many women were willing to wait in my dreary government office, as I ran to the restroom to pull myself together after listening to their stories, is a testament to their fortitude.
Even so, it is reasonable to consider a 27-year reporting delay when assessing the believability of any criminal allegation. More significant perhaps, is Reade’s decision to sit down with a newspaper last year and accuse Biden of touching her in a sexual way that made her uncomfortable — but neglect to mention her claim that he forcibly penetrated her with his fingers.
As a lawyer and victims’ rights advocate, Reade was better equipped than most to appreciate that dramatic changes in sexual assault allegations severely undercut an accuser’s credibility — especially when the change is from an uncomfortable shoulder touch to vaginal penetration.
► Implausible explanation for changing story. When Reade went public with her sexual assault allegation in March, she said she wanted to do it in an interview with The Union newspaper in California last April. She said the reporter’s tone made her feel uncomfortable and "I just really got shut down” and didn't tell the whole story.
It is hard to believe a reporter would discourage this kind of scoop. Regardless, it's also hard to accept that it took Reade 12 months to find another reporter eager to break that bombshell story. This unlikely explanation damages her credibility.
► People who contradict Reade’s claim. After the alleged assault, Reade said she complained about Biden's harassment to Marianne Baker, Biden’s executive assistant, as well as to top aides Dennis Toner and Ted Kaufman. All three Biden staffers recently told The New York Times that she made no complaint to them.
And they did not offer the standard, noncommittal “I don’t remember any such complaint.” The denials were firm. “She did not come to me. If she had, I would have remembered her,” Kaufman said. Toner made a similar statement. And from Baker: “I never once witnessed, or heard of, or received, any reports of inappropriate conduct (by Biden), period." Baker said such a complaint, had Reade made it, "would have left a searing impression on me as a woman professional, and as a manager.”
► Missing formal complaint. Reade told The Times she filed a written complaint against Biden with the Senate personnel office. But The Times could not find any complaint. When The Times asked Reade for a copy of the complaint, she said she did not have it. Yet she maintained and provided a copy of her 1993 Senate employment records.
It is odd that Reade kept a copy of her employment records but did not keep a copy of a complaint documenting criminal conduct by a man whose improprieties changed “the trajectory” of her life. It’s equally odd The Times was unable to find a copy of the alleged Senate complaint.
► Memory lapse. Reade has said that she cannot remember the date, time or exact location of the alleged assault, except that it occurred in a “semiprivate” area in corridors connecting Senate buildings. After I left the Justice Department, I was appointed by the federal court in Los Angeles to represent indigent defendants. The first thing that comes to mind from my defense attorney perspective is that Reade’s amnesia about specifics makes it impossible for Biden to go through records and prove he could not have committed the assault, because he was somewhere else at the time.
For instance, if Reade alleged Biden assaulted her on the afternoon of June 3, 1993, Biden might be able to prove he was on the Senate floor or at the dentist. Her memory lapses could easily be perceived as bulletproofing a false allegation.
► The lie about losing her job. Reade told The Union that Biden wanted her to serve drinks at an event. After she refused, "she felt pushed out and left Biden's employ," the newspaper said last April. But Reade claimed this month in her Times interview that after she filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Senate personnel office, she faced retaliation and was fired by Biden’s chief of staff.
Leaving a job after refusing to serve drinks at a Biden fundraiser is vastly different than being fired as retaliation for filing a sexual harassment complaint with the Senate. The disparity raises questions about Reade’s credibility and account of events.
► Compliments for Biden. In the 1990s, Biden worked to pass the Violence Against Women Act. In 2017, on multiple occasions, Reade retweeted or “liked” praise for Biden and his work combating sexual assault. In the same year, Reade tweeted other compliments of Biden, including: “My old boss speaks truth. Listen.” It is bizarre that Reade would publicly laud Biden for combating the very thing she would later accuse him of doing to her.
► Rejecting Biden, embracing Sanders. By this January, Reade was all in for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Her unwavering support was accompanied by an unbridled attack on Biden. In an article on Medium, Reade referred to Biden as “the blue version of Trump.” Reade also pushed a Sanders/Elizabeth Warren ticket, while complaining that the Democratic National Committee was trying to “shove” Biden “down Democrat voters throats.”
Despite her effusive 2017 praise for Biden’s efforts on behalf of women, after pledging her support to Sanders, Reade turned on Biden and contradicted all she said before. She claimed that her decision to publicly accuse Biden of inappropriately touching her was due to “the hypocrisy that Biden is supposed to be the champion of women’s rights.”
► Love of Russia and Putin. During 2017 when Reade was praising Biden, she was condemning Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s efforts to hijack American democracy in the 2016 election. This changed in November 2018, when Reade trashed the United States as a country of “hypocrisy and imperialism” and “not a democracy at all but a corporate autocracy.”
Reade’s distaste for America closely tracked her new infatuation with Russia and Putin. She referred to Putin as a “genius” with an athletic prowess that “is intoxicating to American women.” Then there’s this gem: “President Putin has an alluring combination of strength with gentleness. His sensuous image projects his love for life, the embodiment of grace while facing adversity.”
In March 2019, Reade essentially dismissed the idea of Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential election as hype. She said she loved Russia and her Russian relatives — and "like most women across the world, I like President Putin … a lot, his shirt on or shirt off.”
Pivoting again this month, Reade said that she “did not support Putin, and that her comments were pulled out of context from a novel she was writing,” according to The Times. The quotations above, however, are from political opinion pieces she published, and she did not offer any other "context" to The Times.
Reade's writings shed light on her political alliance with Sanders, who has a long history of ties to Russia and whose stump speech is focused largely on his position that American inequality is due to a corporate autocracy. But at a very minimum, Reade's wild shifts in political ideology and her sexual infatuation with a brutal dictator of a foreign adversary raise questions about her emotional stability.
► Suspect timing. For 27 years, Reade did not publicly accuse Biden of sexually assaulting her. But then Biden's string of March primary victories threw Sanders off his seemingly unstoppable path to the Democratic nomination. On March 25, as Sanders was pondering his political future, Reade finally went public with her claim. The confluence of Reade’s support of Sanders, distaste for the traditional American democracy epitomized by Biden, and the timing of her allegation should give pause to even the most strident Biden critics.
► The Larry King call. Last week, new "evidence" surfaced: a recorded call by an anonymous woman to CNN's "Larry King Live" show in 1993. Reade says the caller was her mother, who's now deceased. Assuming Reade is correct, her mother said: "I’m wondering what a staffer would do besides go to the press in Washington? My daughter has just left there after working for a prominent senator, and could not get through with her problems at all, and the only thing she could have done was go to the press, and she chose not to do it out of respect for him."
As a prosecutor, this would not make me happy. Given that the call was anonymous, Reade’s mother should have felt comfortable relaying the worst version of events. When trying to obtain someone’s assistance, people typically do not downplay the seriousness of an incident. They exaggerate it. That Reade’s mother said nothing about her daughter being sexually assaulted would lead many reasonable people to conclude that sexual assault was not the problem that prompted the call to King.
Reade’s mother also said her daughter did not go to the press with her problem “out of respect” for the senator. I’ve never met a woman who stayed silent out of “respect” for the man who sexually assaulted her. And it is inconceivable that a mother would learn of her daughter’s sexual assault and suggest that respect for the assailant is what stands between a life of painful silence and justice.
The "out of respect" explanation sounds more like an office squabble with staff that resulted in leaving the job. Indeed, in last year's interview with The Washington Post, Reade laid the blame on Biden’s staff for “bullying” her. She also said, “I want to emphasize: It’s not him. It’s the people around him.”
► Statements to others. Reade’s brother, Collin Moulton, told The Post recently that he remembers Reade telling him Biden inappropriately touched her neck and shoulders. He said nothing about a sexual assault until a few days later, when he texted The Post that he remembered Reade saying Biden put his hand "under her clothes.”
That Reade’s brother neglected to remember the most important part of her allegation initially could lead people to believe he recounted his Post interview to Reade, was told he left out the most important part, and texted it to The Post to avoid a discussion about why he failed to mention it in the first place.
In interviews with The Times, one friend of Reade’s said Reade told her she was sexually assaulted by Biden. Another friend said Reade told her that Biden touched her inappropriately. Both friends insisted that The Times maintain their anonymity.
On Monday, Business Insider published an interview with a friend of Reade’s who said that in 1995 or 1996, Reade told her she was assaulted by Biden. Insider called this friend, Lynda LaCasse, the “first person to independently corroborate, in detail and on the record, that Reade had told others about her assault allegations contemporaneously.”
But Reade alleged she was assaulted in 1993. Telling a friend two or three years later is not contemporaneous. Legal references to a contemporaneous recounting typically refer to hours or days — the point being that facts are still fresh in a person's mind and the statement is more likely to be accurate.
The Insider also quoted a colleague of Reade’s in the mid-1990s, Lorraine Sanchez, who said Reade told her she had been sexually harassed by a former boss. Reade did not mention Biden by name and did not provide details of the alleged harassment.
In prior interviews, Reade gave what appeared be an exhaustive list of people she told of the alleged assault. Neither of the women who talked to Business Insider were on that list.
The problem with statements from friends is that the information they recount is only as good as the information given to them. Let’s say Reade left her job because she was angry about being asked to serve drinks or because she was fired for a legitimate reason. If she tried to save face by telling friends that she left because she was sexually assaulted, that’s all her friends would know and all they could repeat.
Prior statements made by a sexual assault victim can carry some weight, but only if the accuser is credible. In Reade’s case, the statements coming from her friends are only of value if people believe Reade can be relied on to tell the truth, regardless of the light in which it paints her.
► Lack of other sexual assault allegations. Last year, several women claimed that Biden made them uncomfortable with things like a shoulder touch or a hug. (I wrote a column critical of one such allegation by Lucy Flores.) The Times and Post found no allegation of sexual assault against Biden except Reade's.
It is possible that in his 77 years, Biden committed one sexual assault and it was against Reade. But in my experience, men who commit a sexual assault are accused more than once ... like Donald Trump, who has had more than a dozen allegations of sexual assault leveled against him and who was recorded bragging about grabbing women’s genitalia.
► What remains. There are no third-party eyewitnesses or videos to support Tara Reade’s allegation that she was assaulted by Joe Biden. No one but Reade and Biden know whether an assault occurred. This is typical of sexual assault allegations. Jurors, in this case the voting public, have to consider the facts and circumstances to assess whether Reade’s allegation is credible. To do that, they have to determine whether Reade herself is believable.
I’ve dreaded writing this piece because I do not want it to be used as a guidebook to dismantling legitimate allegations of sexual assault. But not every claim of sexual assault is legitimate. During almost three decades as a prosecutor, I can remember dismissing two cases because I felt the defendant had not committed the charged crime. One of those cases was a rape charge.
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The facts of that case made me question the credibility of the woman who claimed she was raped. In the end, she acknowledged that she fabricated the allegation after her boyfriend caught her with a man with whom she was having an affair.
I know that “Believe Women” is the mantra of the new decade. It is a response to a century of ignoring and excusing men’s sexual assaults against women. But men and women alike should not be forced to blindly accept every allegation of sexual assault for fear of being labeled a misogynist or enabler.
We can support the #MeToo movement and not support allegations of sexual assault that do not ring true. If these two positions cannot coexist, the movement is no more than a hit squad. That’s not how I see the #MeToo movement. It’s too important, for too many victims of sexual assault and their allies, to be no more than that.
Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1